Thursday, 19 August 2021

Nardi Simpson, The song of the crocodile


July is our Indigenous book month and we chose the much acclaimed first novel by the singer and songwriter, Nardi Simpson, called Song of the crocodile. This novel has been shortlisted for 3 awards in early 2021 and Simpson won the black&write! Writing fellowship in 2018.

It tells the story of four generations of an Indigenous family living in the outskirts of the river town of Darnmoor in northern outback NSW. The town is linked to the Indigenous settlement of the Campground by the Old Black Road. This road of four miles has to be walked daily by the main characters in this novel. They are parallel settlements except that Darnmoor tries to deny the existence of the Indigenous workers living in poverty and injustice. This story tracks parts of the lives of three very strong and resilient women, Margaret, (Mili’s grandmother) Celie (or Ceil) (Mili’s mother) and Mili and her boys, Paddy and Yarri. The landscape of the area is all-pervasive in this novel.

First impressions:


  • Hard challenging read, as it tracks racism, injustice and black and white prejudice. However, listening to an interview with the author she has an uplifting take on her creation – she admires the entrepreneurship of the women and their ability to cope with such injustices as wage theft. Many features of the character’s lives were never fully explained but clearly suggested in the novel.
  • Hard to get into after just finishing Hilary Mantel’s The mirror and the light. Very tragic, but also shows strength and resilience which are positive features of the characters.
  • Liked the merging of the living and the dead.
  • EPIC and harrowing and impending things are going to happen. (We returned to ‘EPIC’ many times during the conversation).
  • Glossary would have been good. 
  • Irritating book, loved the characters but frustrated by certain features eg in the ending, the water didn’t travel over the levee (but others felt we are not told are not told whether it did or didn’t). Didn't like that all the good characters got killed or died eg Tom and Wil. Was Wil’s death because he consumed so much sugar ? Was Tom run over by a semi-trailer?
  • Can’t believe all white people are shits – thought that was overdone. Found it an extremely challenging novel and didn’t like the writing style. Felt bashed over the head by the same point and felt it needed a good edit. Even felt it alienating.
  • Really liked it and enjoyed it. Felt it was more a fable than a ‘real’ story. Gave a sense of what life is like for Indigenous people rather than reflecting exact reality. There were deaths like Wil and Yarri’s but there was also joy. For example, the communal life at the Campground before the levee broke up the community. There was so much sadness but also much love between the characters. Liked the interplay between the spirit world and the human world.
  • Found it engrossing, but the feeling of doom pervaded. Admired Celie setting up the laundry shed which was positive and the relationships with the other women workers. Reminded me of Pachinko and the relationships between those isolated Korean women living in Japan.
  • I am not into magic realism but I liked the spiritual world Simpson created. Her language and expression was wonderful. For example, when Mili was raped by the Mayor it wasn’t spelt out but inferred with metaphors. Also, there was one good Greek man – Angelou who helped Celie. (This was questionable according to another who felt he may have been ‘bothering’ the women.)
  • Is this book a bit like works by Isabelle Allende? Another member disputed that claim. The author does not like the term ‘magic realism’. 
  • Simpson comes from a very talented family of creative people and I am really glad I read it.
  • She is a supersmart woman who was not able to finish a formal education at school but is now doing further tertiary studies. 
  • The deaths were shocking but the author blended them into the cycle of the character’s lives. 
  • Strong resilient people who were not able to realise their potential. 
  • The book felt like a tribute to these people she has created even though they were apparently a mixture of people she has known. 
  • How do people keep going when struck by such adversity?
  • I don’t understand why people died – a bit romanticised.
  • The campground was community even though it was 4 miles out of town. Injustice upon injustice. 
  • I found it quite uplifting. I was expecting a dramatic climax – for example, a water spout or the war memorial monument rising up!
  • Fabulous book, ambitious and very rewarding – very different way of seeing the world.




We began by discussing the main characters, Celie and Mili. We all felt very sad that they were unable to love Paddy who was the result of a rape of a very young and vulnerable Mili by the Mayor. As one reader said, Rape and its consequences are hard to make anything good out of. Mick Murphy knew that Mili was a treasure and some felt she was set up with the acquiescence of Vera, Mick’s wife. One member would have liked more about Vera and others felt sorry for her. Darnmoor was male-dominated and Mrs Murphy was definitely under the thumb of her husband.

One reader thought there might be a way of understanding the talk about Mili’s eyes – an unusual shade of green. The baby’s (Mili’s) eye colour changed when her father was killed by the truck. The idea had been that Tom would get a house for him and Celie and baby Mili. This also involved with the sad story of Mili’s friends, Trilpa and Eadie.

However, we decided that for us as white people it is hard to read and fully comprehend an Indigenous resolution to problems.

We thought Celie was a successful character who demanded a job from the Mayor’s wife and then worked very hard doing the town’s laundry. However, we couldn't be sure that they were receiving correct wages for the labour. We all admired Bess, Celie’s sister, who was not romanticised and who also worked very hard and sewed so beautifully.

Wil was a strong character who cared for his boys and Mili. He had threatened the mayor in order to obtain their promised house. This house, we felt, was a blessing but also a curse for Milie as it isolated her when she most needed friends and family.

For the family, life after the rape was very difficult. It was even harder after the birth of Paddy. Mili is unable to relate to her child. Her mother and aunt also retreat. Yarri loves his brother, in fact idolises him.

We all appreciated Celie's mother, Margaret Lightning, who like the others was at the coal face of prejudice. She worked so hard in the hospital but was then dismissed crudely. All these characters face prejudice each day.

Mick Murphy is proud of his grandfather and so he explained it to Mili. One reader found his interest in talking to her unbelievable.

Nardi Simpson is reflecting stories she has been told and her perspective on town folk arises from holidays she spent up near Walgett visiting friends and family. Her characters are an amalgam of various people and her imagination. This is an Indigenous story and we as white women can never fully comprehend the full ramifications of their difficulties.

Nardi is keen to share her language in the novel and did not provide a dictionary. She doesn’t want readers too worried about individual meanings but go with the flow.

An excellent interview with the author is by Daniel Browning from ABC Radio National. 

We discussed the language of the spirits, such as the crocodile. Is the crocodile only a negative spirit? He is part of the environment so it is not black and white (no pun intended).

It seems an evil spirit but it is nuanced – not in a Judeo-Christian way.

There is also the question of how to live as a good person – which is often posed by people at the end of their life.

There is a spiritual view of the world in this novel. The stories are not didactic but create ways to think. It was reminiscent of Greek tragedy for one of our members. In that, there are similar larger than life characters between the divine and human.

We thought there was some humour in the novel, which slightly eased the sense of tragedy. A good example was the funny scene in the laundry where Celie and Mili compare their hand done washing to the quality achieved by the new appliances. They do it by washing one handkerchief. Our member who grew up in South Africa said she remembered similar hesitancy by her mother’s staff when washing machines became available.

The style of the novel was not discussed widely, although one reader said she thought it was in the ‘middle’ of the recent novels by First Nations’ writers. We also thought that various other Indigenous writers didn’t like the term ‘magical realism’, as it doesn't properly reflect their spirituality, which is unique to Australia's First Nations peoples.

A member advised us of a south coast festival which may be on, depending on Covid in NSW, the October version of Giiyong Festival.


Present: 10 members